An Important Technique for Adding Momentum to a Slow Plot

 By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

I'm a huge fan of having action-filled plots in my books. I don't like static, white-noise, or fluff in my stories. I want every scene to move the story along in an important way. In past posts I've addressed ways to develop riveting plots:

For example, in Creating a Book Readers Can't Put Down I give these four tips:

• Develop relatable characters
• Create and prolong suspense
• Increase conflict
• Use read-on-prompts

In 4 Ways to Add Caffeine to a Story, I lay out more ways to keep the plot moving:

• Use continuous but purposeful action
• Add plenty of new and interesting adventure
• Tighten the noose of danger and dilemma
• Make every scene count

As much as we want to rivet our readers, we can't have every scene end up in a gun-fight, car-chase, or barroom-brawl. We risk tiring our readers if we give them chapter after chapter of unrelenting, heart-stopping drama.

Plots need pacing, and that means that we'll have some slower scenes–perhaps a few paragraphs or even a few pages–between the fast scenes. We might use those slower-paced scenes to focus on a developing romance, or we could have our character do some important self-searching. Those are the times our readers can breathe and their heart rates can return to normal, before we sock them with the next dangerous situation or vamp up the conflict.

But . . . slow pacing and less intense scenes are not an excuse to bore our readers. We don't want to ramble on with issues or events that have no bearing on the plot. We don't want to give our readers an excuse to put down our books and NOT pick them back up.

So how, then, do we keep our reader's interest during the slower sections of the book? In other
words, how can we add or keep the momentum going?

One KEY way to keep the momentum going is to constantly have unanswered questions. 

I've noticed the unanswered-question technique in a number of books I've read recently. In fact a couple of the books didn't necessarily have action-packed plots. But I found myself not wanting to put the books down regardless of the slower paces.

When I analyzed why I kept reading even though the action didn't move me along, I realized I was curious to discover the answers to questions the author had posed but hadn't answered.

Unanswered questions come on a micro and macro level. 

On the macro level, we can have a much bigger question that remains unanswered for a large part of the book. We may leave out important back story until a later point which keeps our readers turning the pages so they can finally understand why a character is acting or responding a certain way. We drop hints, but we don't tell everything until a strategic point later in the book.

We might leave certain aspects of the plot or even minor characters a mystery. We may have unexplained events or strange happenings. Essentially we dangle a carrot but continually keep it out of reach until well into the later part of the book.

On the micro level, we tease our readers with smaller issues. We may have a mysterious knocking on the window, or a character who keeps showing up in the background. But we do this on a shorter term basis, from chapter to chapter. We introduce a mystery but rather than leaving our readers hanging throughout the book, we let them in on the answer sooner.

Too many unanswered questions placed too often can leave the reader frustrated. Too few used too infrequently can leave the reader bored. The trick is to weave in just enough so that those questions propel readers forward even when we slow the pacing, because we've perked their curiosity and placed within them the burning need to uncover the truth.

How well do you use the technique of leaving your reader hanging with unanswered questions? What are some other ways you help your readers to make it through the slower paced parts of your book?

Photo Credit: Flickr by access.denied


  1. Perhaps I'm a little weird, but I get frustrated with too many questions that go on and on and on for forever. In fact, I usually skip ahead in the book to find out the answer if they go on for too long (and then, of course, I don't always want to go back and read the skipped part unless it looks really good).

    When it comes to something like imparting backstory or revealing some other information, I usually figure that out in my revision stage of the ms. Right now, I think I've revealed one of my character's backstory about 3 different times, because it naturally seems to come up every time. I'm only on page 100 of the book, but for now, I have all three of those conversations and memories in there, and I'll decide which point is the best once the entire story finishes . . . and I'll probably go with on of the later points over the earlier.

    But for me as a reader, micro tension is usually what makes or breaks a romance novel. In a romance novel, I know the H/H are going to have lots of scenes together doing a bit of everything. Do those scenes make me fall asleep? Or do they make me laugh or squirm? Some romance novels can have really similar plots to adventure or suspense or coming of age novels. So it's the ROMANTIC SCENES WITH THE HERO AND HEROINE that make all the difference. And that usually boils down to micro tension, which tends to get skipped over in a lot of "how to write" books and blogs. Yet I'd also wager that micro tension between the H/H is why half the romance readers out there read in that genre.

    1. Hi Naomi,

      Great points for a romance. I agree! It's all the little situations with the micro tension that keeps my heart engaged in a romance. I think that's why I can easily put down a romance book if the couple ends up together too soon in the story. I need that tension to eek out until the very end, but of course in a believable and realistic way.

      And I'm amazed at how you write, Naomi! I'm very linear, so your method sounds very confusing to me! But hey, it goes to show that we're all wired differently and that there's never a one-size fits all way of doing things! :-)

    2. Yes, I tend to approach my stories with very broad, nebulous goals and themes and narrow them down as the story progresses. My crit partner teases me about my "vague and nebulous plotting." :-) But I suppose it works something like this: I can't look at a story plot and say "Oh, this is where I need to do X." I can make a guess and try putting X in a certain place, but sometimes I need to put X in the wrong place, stand back and take the time to realize X really doesn't belong there, and then move X to where it goes. At least this way, I know for sure that I've found the best possible place for X. If you decide to put X somewhere just based on a plot, how do you really know you've found the best place and the story wouldn't be stronger if you moved X somewhere else?

      I don't write my stories completely with this trial and error method. But there are somethings I just can't predict from a plot or synopsis. A first kiss is almost always one of these variable elements. None of my synopses ever mention kisses, because I have no idea where any of them are going to be until I'm in the middle of my story. And yes, I've been know to pull or add or move kisses around before the final version is ready. :-)

  2. Great post Jody. Very helpful. I've thought about these pacing issues, but on a more intuitive level. It's helpful to name it like you have here. It's a balancing act for sure. Sometimes the questions can be implied, other times they can be named or stated in the H/H's thoughts.

    I notice sometimes when I get critiques back from a few CP's that they are often asking a lot of questions about the back story in the first 100 pages. I think it's important to note that just because they have formulated the questions, doesn't mean the writer should dump in the answers. Rather, it reflects what you've pointed out here--that the writer has been successful in creating questions. Perhaps the focus should be, is the writer creating the questions in the reader that he/she intended? Do they make the reader read on? or frustrate them?

    1. Hi Anne,

      Yes, it's hard to always know how to handle the questions CP's raise. They're just trying to be as thorough and helpful as possible. I think it's always wise to evaluate what's truly confusing to them versus what they are anxious to discover. Because while we want to leave some questions unanswered, we also don't want our readers to be constantly going, "Huh?" :-)

  3. Jeff Gerke's craft book The First 50 Pages was a huge help for my last story, and I'm using his suggestions in my WIP.

    It's the push and pull of moving forward and holding back.
    Moving the plot forward, while deciding what to hold back from the reader so the tension can mount and unravel to a pleasurable conclusion.

    1. Hi Jenni,

      I haven't read Jeff Gerke's book. I'll have to check it out! I'm always looking for a good writing craft book. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  4. Great! Thanks for the article. Loved to hear more examples of "unanswered questions"

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Michele! I'm glad the post resonated! :-)

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